An extensive look at why Buffy the Vampire Slayer has a difficult path to Blu-ray ahead, and what needs to change for the transfer to become a successful reality.
Why Buffy may never be Blu.
by John Pavlich
In episode 47 of the always entertaining and informative internet series HD Nation, co-host Patrick Norton listed some of his personal choices for DVDs in desperate need of a High Definition upgrade. His final selection on that list? Joss Whedon’s epic, Horror-Drama series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This reminded me of the numerous times I’ve made that very same request into my Magic 8 Ball, and the consistent reply that would always return, “Don’t count on it.” With that, I decided to take a deeper look at just why we may never see Buffy get the Blu-ray treatment.
Hardcore fans may be quick to point out that the first two seasons were shot using 16 millimeter film, later upgrading to standard 35 for the remainder of Buffy’s seven-season run on TV. While this is true, it has no real effect on the Blu-ray dream becoming a reality. Such a format could conceivably be transferred to 1080p HD resolution. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre from 1974 being one example.
Aspect ratio could be a deciding factor, but is more of a simple judgment call at this point. Currently, Buffy can be viewed in Widescreen via both iTunes and the Netflix streaming video service, Watch Instantly. Not to mention, the Region 2 and Region 4 DVDs (Europe and Australia, respectively) are presented this way. One could argue for any of those options to be used as source material, but it would be a big mistake. With the exception of the famous musical episode “Once More with Feeling”, Buffy was shot for broadcast television during the late nineties and early two-thousands, the traditional framing format at the time being a more squared, 4 by 3. This is not simply a matter of purity.
When the complete series was re-released and re-packaged on DVD as The Chosen Collection, show creator Joss Whedon included a special note to consumers, explaining that Buffy was framed for the “full frame” TV format, and was always meant to be viewed accordingly, meaning you were never intended to see beyond the borders of this industry standard.
Before you go crying “foul” and feeling ripped-off, I’d like you to take a look at something. Though Buffy was produced using normal, wide picture film cameras, these devices have preset borders within the viewfinders and display monitors. They’re used to keep the director of photography from “coloring outside the lines”, making for a more centered and TV-friendly picture. Below, I’ve included two different examples of the same image. They’re from the Season Four finale, “Restless” (my personal favorite episode of the entire series).
The first screen capture is from the standard definition DVD, which itself was taken from the original, broadcast version, the way it was meant to be seen.
The second screen capture is the “widescreen” version, pulled from video streaming via Netflix.
In the first shot, the image stops at the trash bin to the left, and Xander’s shirt collar to the right. In the second shot, we now see a random row of chairs set off to the side in the background. That’s not the big problem. The big problem is the now present, huge stage light sticking out from a hole in the ceiling. Equally as distracting, is what appears to be a C-Stand just sitting off to the left side of frame, next to the bin.
Need something more? How about these pics of a frame from later in the same episode? In this scene, Buffy is making a case for her friends being a crucial element to her success as a Slayer. The camera then cuts to the image you see before you, of The First Slayer declaring “No friends! We are alone!” After those words are spoken, The Cheese Man steps into frame, breaking the tension.
Now, because of the widescreen enhancement, we can see him waiting off to the side, while The First Slayer is talking. Not only is this distracting, but it basically ruins the moment.
If that’s not enough to convince you that Buffy in widescreen is an ill-advised atrocity, I finally offer up the shots of this frame from episode eleven of season six, “Gone” (not a big fan of that episode, but I digress). In a few wacky steps, Buffy has become invisible. She uses this ability to manipulate Dawn’s file in a Social Worker’s computer, undetected. We’re given Buffy’s point of view, as her phantom fingers magically peck at the keyboard.
Once again, thanks to the misguided expansion of the frame, the effect is totally blown, revealing a mass of wires running out from under one side of the keyboard.
These complaints are fairly irrelevant though, since there is no written rule stating a Blu-ray release must implement the widescreen format. The real roadblocks crop up when considering how much time, money and man power a video distribution company is willing to spend. Buffy the Vampire Slayer may have been shot on film, but the post-production process was done using footage transferred to video tape. Editing, animation and optical effects were all applied after the image had been downgraded, so as to assist in a faster, more cost effective post-production period. This was ultimately the footage used for broadcast television. Coupled with massive compression techniques (squeezing four episodes of the show, special features and overly-flashy menus onto a single disc), this is why the eventual DVDs mostly look so, let’s face it, terrible. Too often, the episodes look like VHS tape quality, because they are VHS tape quality. Somehow, season four looks comparatively nicer, but that’s a mystery for another time.
By now, you’re probably reminding me of Paramount’s extensive restoration of Star Trek: The Original Series for Blu-ray. Unfortunately, a lot of special circumstances made such an undertaking possible. Star Trek is a cherished classic franchise, spanning more than forty years of entertainment, from over ten films and at least five television incarnations. Buffy, not so much. Though very beloved and popular within certain eclectic circles, Buffy still maintains a more cult status, not that there’s anything wrong with that at all. The 2009 re-imagining of Star Trek had a lot of influence on the series restoration as well, which resulted in a renewed interest in the property.
Recently, there have been rumblings of a possible revamp with a new film about the Slayer mythology. The difference here being, a potential blu-ray restoration of the series depends greatly on the monetary profit of the new film, if it ever does happen. Basically, it would be a proof of concept. Discussing this notion, it’s nearly impossible not to think of Serenity, the motion picture rendition of Joss Whedon’s other highly valued TV show, Firefly. Imagine what could have been, had Serenity proved to be financially viable.
Regardless, Firefly did eventually receive a Blu-ray transfer. Reason being, Firefly is a consistently popular title for 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. If you’ll recall, the studio had no desire at the time to tell this story on at the multiplex. Thus, Universal Studios put up the dough and bought the rights to make Serenity a reality. Though the film broke almost even at the box office, the DVD continues to make up for such big screen shortcomings.
Firefly on Blu-ray actually shares a lot in common with Buffy. Whedon’s sci-fi western was shot in HD*. However, just like Buffy, the visual effects were done in post on standard video. Depending on who you talk to, the jump in picture quality is too minor to be a deterrence. Your mileage may vary. At issue here is the fact that all of Buffy has been reduced to the video format, not just the effects. For this to be a worthwhile endeavor, Fox would have to seek out the original film negatives, provided all of that source material is readily available and has been well-preserved. Consider as well, using the original print, a hundred and eight hours or more of footage has to go through the editing process again, including a potential remastering of both music and sound editing. Presumably, special features would also require a boost. I’m talking about more, new audio commentaries of course, possibly even picture-in-picture video versions. Roughly 32 commentaries within 144 episodes leaves plenty room for improvement.
I know all of this sounds extremely pessimistic, but I’m being more realistic than anything else. Fox has to ensure a high enough return on this kind of investment, and you can only hope to get back what you put into it. Rather than porting over the pre-existing DVDs to a rushed and basic HD up-conversion for a quick cash grab, long hours and elusive resources would be necessary to do this right. However, it’s not a hopeless pipe dream.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is still a valuable and profitable franchise today. Conventions, colleges, essay books, comics and more all keep this material in the public consciousness. Cult or otherwise, there’s still plenty of lucrative product to be sold with the Buffy brand. What with the vampire craze at an all time high and Joss Whedon’s recent status breaking into the multifaceted, multimillion dollar mainstream, the iron is blazing hot and the time to strike is certainly now, if not very soon. Make no mistake, if 20th Century Fox put forth the right amount of effort, a proper Blu-ray edition could easily mean big bucks for their home video market.
So, with a little patience and luck, I think Buffy on Blu-ray could be very feasible in the near future. After all, March of 2012 is the 15th anniversary of the television series’ initial release. This would give Fox plenty of time to produce an amazing, definitive box set on Blu-ray, they would just have to get started, pretty much now. After that? Two and a half years provide room for an inevitable Blu-ray release of Angel, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Just like Patrick Norton of HD Nation, and the vast array of Buffy fans around the world, I hope to one day soon ask the Blu-ray question again, and the Magic 8 Ball to respond, “All signs point to Yes”. At this point, I’d even settle for a, “Reply hazy. Ask again later”.
*Correction: Thanks to Whedonesque member, Tin Ear Tom, I’m reminded that Firefly was actually shot on 35mm film.